Nearby the town of Washington, California on State Route 20, the towns of Alpha and Omega were both hydraulic mines popular in the 1850s. Today, a view of the Alpha Hydraulic Diggings can be seen from a distance at a roadside rest stop. Some of the old trails through the Alpha and Omega Diggings area are considered some of the best mountain biking trails in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Alpha was the birthplace of famed opera singer, Emma Nevada. The Yuba River flows at the bottom of the canyon view, some 2,000 feet down. Alpha and Omega never grew to become large towns. The hydraulic mining activity eventually overwhelmed the towns and they disappeared.
The Sawyer Decision to end Hydraulic Mining
Hydraulic mining during the Gold Rush used high-pressure water jets to wash away gravel from a mountainside in order to extract gold from the rocks. Although hydraulic mining was popular with mining companies, the environmental effects were devastating.
This practice seriously eroded mountain bluffs as gravel washed away. Water coming from high elevations flushed enormous amounts of sediment into the rivers flowing downstream. Rivers flooded in winter and riparian habitat was destroyed.
The ”anti-debris” case went to trial in June 1883. On July 1, 1884, Judge Lorenzo Sawyer’s decision to end hydraulic mining became one of the first environmental decisions in the nation. All hydraulic mining activities throughout the Mother Lode ended abruptly, leading to a sharp decline in population at any camp or town where hydraulic mining was the primary method of extracting gold. People moved on to other diggings and the places they left behind stood abandoned.
The historical landmark is located at the Omega Rest Area on State Highway 20, 6 miles east of Washington Road in the town of Washington.
Nevada means “snow-covered” in Spanish. During winter months, Nevada County’s eastern border is wholly engulfed in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In the 1840s and 1850s many emigrants arrived in California via the Overland Emigrant Trail which threaded through the infamous Donner Pass.